by Brian T. Lynch, MSW
Wealth disparity has a profound, relativistic impact in human societies and this is worth understanding. Even in the most egalitarian societies where everything is shared, there are subtle differences in the distribution of goods and services. These small differences convey powerful social messages that are keenly felt by all its members. These messages impact social interactions and the social order. Wealth distribution has powerful symbolic meaning in every society, large or small, rich or poor.
When the actual material differences in wealth are subtle, the costs or benefits conferred by wealth distribution are limited to social perceptions and its impact on social order or governance. These material differences are not existential threats to the socially disadvantaged. However, as the actual material differences between members of society grows, the scarcity of essential resources for some may follow. This becomes ever more consequential as it increases the efforts needed to assure survival. It introduces more uncertainty and decreases the sense of personal control. Distribution induced disparity can grow to the point where it can even become life threaten. Additionally, the social power differential grows to the point where social relationships by the advantaged towards the disadvantaged can become exploitive and extractive.
Under conditions of extreme wealth disparity there are physical and psychological impacts on both the powerful and less powerful. The Socially disadvantaged undergo significant stress and will exhibit all the symptoms and conditions associated with chronic stress (alcoholism, drug abuse, depression, maladaptive behaviors, obesity, child abuse, poor health outcomes, etc.). What is important to understand is that it is the disparity in wealth that induces social stress, not the absolute measure of wealth. Extreme wealth disparity becomes pathological in all societies, both rich or poor. This appears to have been true throughout history. Evidence of the corrosive effects of social disparity has even been demonstrated in research studying the impact of dominance on subordinate primate populations, so this appears to be a natural phenomenon.
Extreme wealth disparity is a threat to society. This fact is underappreciated by many. And distribution induced shortages don’t need to be at starvation levels before reaching critical mass, especially in wealthy countries like ours. Pundits have used this starvation metric or comparisons of our poverty to that found in poor countries to dismiss the current threat we face from rapidly growing wealth disparity. A better measure of our social instability is the health and welfare of the nation’s poor. The ranks of the poor are growing and their welfare is rapidly deteriorating. Here we find a conspiracy of silence in the main stream press. The symptoms of poverty induced stress have been reinterpreted as moral weaknesses and personal failings for which the poor have no one but themselves to blame. Both the unfair distribution of current wages and the redistribution of wealth through taxes to assist the poor are almost taboo subjects. To raise these issues is to be accused of inciting class warfare, which is exactly what has been raging for decades to bring us to this point.
The last time America experienced such enormous wealth disparity we were fortunate that the worst consequence was the Great Depression and not a total social collapse. The Great Recession of 2008 is an early warning of what will happen if we don’t correct our current wealth imbalance. So far the alarm bells are ringing but the public address system is still on mute.
I can’t remember where I read it, but some time ago, there was a study done regarding the happiness factor and the researches found that the smaller gap between the various members of a society, the more stable and happy the population regardless of whether the society was well off or living in poverty – whereas large gaps between the richest and poorest always led to social unrest and revolution…
The problem cannot be solved, because the very wealthy have all the political power, and they will never give up a single dollar willingly. The richest people already seem to resent the crumbs they spill that the rest of us get now, imagine asking them for a whole slice of the pie. As long as the US government is bought by scarcely disguised bribes known as campaign donations, the ultra rich will continue to stack the deck in their own favor. Sadly, short term greed overwhelms the ability to think long term, and the very wealthy will end up with a collapse of the very system they have bought and profited so handsomely from. Eventually the 99% will realize the power of their numbers. When that happens it will not be pretty. Hopefully the system and society that is borne from the ashes of our current unfair mess will be better for the majority of us.
I am slightly more optimistic than you, Brent. My optimism is not rooted on the present which still looks quite bleak, as you can see. It is rooted in the past where there are examples of power and wealth being redistributed more equitably through social change. It think a more careful assessment of our present situation suggests that the wealthy have a controling interest in our government and our social power structures, but they are not yet all powerful. You speak the truth when you say the wealthy never willingly give up anything, which is why everyone else must organize to marshall contervailing social forces in order to bring about change.
People don’t give much thought to why social organizing works, but it works because the essence of social power is coordinated action. The wealthy are few but they have money, position and influence with which they can coordinate the actions of many others to serve their own interests. And they know that to maintain their advantage they must constantly inhibit the abilities of others to organize and coordinate actions for themselves. The rest of us don’t have money, position or prestige. We only have our passions. This tension between the wealthy elite and the rest of society is the underlying dynamic that is most out of balance today.
We do still have a choices to make. It is not too late to resist the forces that are keeping us divided and disorganized. We can overcome the present barriers and organize ourselves in vast numbers to regain the political power necessary to rebalance our government and our economy. This is the path we followed a hundred years ago leading up to Roosevelt’s New Deal. Or, can do nothing and wait until our underlying rage builds to the point where it erupts in revolt. Feeling helpless, powerless and futile is exactly the emotional state that has been designed for us. Directing our rage at one highly polarized political party or another is also part of their larger design. In this regard the wealthy elites have successfully obstructed and marginalized collective governments power. In organizing ourselves we must carefully choose where and how we direct our efforts.